Juan Pablo Montoya is back, but for a limited time only. After leaving NASCAR at the end of the 2013 season, losing his ride at Chip Ganassi Racing, Montoya made a return to the Verizon IndyCar Series. So far this year, he’s been absent from the NASCAR landscape. But earlier in the year, Montoya announced that he’d be making a couple of NASCAR Sprint Cup appearances this year, competing at Michigan International Speedway and at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
With the Sprint Cup Series racing at Michigan this weekend in the Quicken Loans 400, Montoya is set to make his first NASCAR race of the season. He’ll be driving a No. 12 Team Penske Ford entry.
On Friday, Montoya spoke to the media about his NASCAR return. Here’s what he had to say:
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT HOW THINGS ARE GOING AND COMING BACK TO NASCAR? “It’s exciting to be back, especially with Team Penske and the SKF Ford. It’s pretty cool. I only had one day of testing in Nashville a little bit before the Indy 500, so it’s been awhile, but in Nashville it probably took me about five laps to really get comfortable in the car. It was really weird because one of the funny things is in Indy Car the cars are always on pit road. You don’t drive through the garage, so that was kind of fun. You get in the garage and you’ve got to reverse out again, so that brought back good memories of being here. To be honest with you, with the way Team Penske is running here it’s a hell of a chance. You see Joey’s comments sometimes and he says it was a terrible day and he finished fifth or sixth, so from my history here I would have killed to have a car that would do that. Our goal here, I think, is we’ll take it as it comes this weekend, but the way really look at it is it’s really good preparation for the Brickyard. Working with Greg Erwin, who is a real experienced crew chief. He’s won races and he knows what it takes to get it done. If we do a good job here understanding what I want out of the car, then going to the Brickyard we might be looking really, really strong. It could be fun.”
DO YOU LOOK FORWARD TO GETTING A DIFFERENT LOOK ON THE NASCAR SIDE WITH TEAM PENSKE VERSUS GANASSI? “Absolutely. It’s a very different organization. With Chip we had good years, bad years, good races, bad – we had everything. The way Team Penske is running right now, they look like every week they have a shot at winning, so if we do a good job here and we have a decent race we’ll easily get a top 10 and if I’m really comfortable in the car we could even look at a win. I think this track, with my background in open wheel, coming here is gonna play into my hands a little bit because it’s a really fast track. It’s a track you don’t brake, it’s a track where you’re really controlling the throttle and you do that a lot in Indy Car. I always run well here and qualified really well here. Last year I think I qualified 10th and sixth last year in the Ganassi car, so coming here is really exciting. Roger gave me the opportunity to come here and we want to make SKF and the Ford group proud of what we can do.”
YOU HAD SOME AIRLINE ISSUES TRYING TO GET HERE THIS WEEK. DID YOU THINK YOU MIGHT NOT MAKE IT? “I made it here last night about 11:30.”
DID AMERICAN AIRLINES HANDLE EVERYTHING WELL? “No. (laughter) To be honest with you, we were gonna drive from Chicago to Iowa and we were getting our car. As we were renting the car to drive they said the team plane is going to Joliet tomorrow morning to leave some crews for Chicago, and then they’re going to take Will to Iowa. So I stayed by Joliet and they took me in the morning. I got there and it was raining. It was hectic I would say. The challenge is crazy because I was telling somebody yesterday I was going around Milwaukee, and I tested Milwaukee a lot on the Cup side, and it’s 10 seconds a lap difference there, so my visual cues change a lot. I think that’s gonna be the hardest thing is the more I drive the Indy Cars the visual part. Most of the feeling between the cars is visual – how fast it tells you you’re OK here, so those two edges are the big difference.”
WHAT KIND OF OPPORTUNITY IS THIS FOR YOU AND HOW WILL IT TRANSLATE BACK TO OPEN-WHEEL? “For me it’s more of an opportunity to maybe win a race or two here. This year we’ve got two really good shots. This is probably one of the best tracks for the Fords. They always excel here and have a car that can win, and the way Team Penske is running right now, if it clicks from the beginning, and we hope it does, we might have a shot at winning this. And then going to the Brickyard is a place that I run really well. When we ran bad we were always in the top 10, so going there in a car like this you’re definitely looking at a shot at a win as well.”
A COUPLE OF DRIVERS WERE SENSITIVE ABOUT YOUR TECHNIQUE AT BELLE ISLE A COUPLE OF WEEKS AGO, SUGGESTING YOU WERE BLOCKING. “I blocked once, yeah. I got away with it. I was lucky that I got away with it. I looked at the video afterwards and I told them that I was surprised they didn’t penalize me for that, but they said the video was down and they couldn’t.”
WILL YOUR FRIENDS HERE BE MORE UNDERSTANDING? “It’s racing. I’m here to race and that’s it. I’ve done this long enough. If you think about every series I’ve done, the longest series I’ve been in in my career was NASCAR. I was in Formula 1 for six years and I was here for seven. In Indy Car I’ve only been there for two-and-a-half, so I know the game here and it’s fun knowing that you’re not doing the whole season.”
WILL IT BE MUCH DIFFERENT TO GET IN THE CAR THIS WEEKEND WITH SOME OF THE RULE CHANGES THAT HAVE TAKEN PLACE? “I think it will be easier to drive. I think the extra downforce and extra grip in the cars is something that’s new for everybody here, one they’re used to, but for me I’m going the other way. I’m going to less downforce and less grip, so the more they put on the grip the easier it’s going to be for me to drive, I think. It’s funny. In Nashville I drove it and, to be honest with you, the first three laps I missed the corner by a mile. From history I always know where to brake and I can pretty much tell you every track where you have to lift, so I went there and I braked and as I started turning in it felt really slow, so I got out of the brakes and missed the corner completely.”
SO DO YOU FEEL YOU’RE UP TO SPEED? “I was within a tenth-and-a-half of the best time they ran at Nashville in eight laps. I was kind of surprised, so that was good.”
YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE NEW QUALIFYING FORMAT IN NASCAR? “Especially here I think it’s a great thing because the tires are really consistent, so if I screw up I’ll get another shot. They tell me the draw is a big thing and where you draw on pit lane makes a big difference, so we’ll see where we draw. To be honest with you, we just have to put the car in the top 24 on the first run and then we can really go at it and see what it brings, but it’s exciting. The way it was before, if your car was good, it was really good. If you missed it, you were screwed. Here this gives you a little extra chance to get it done.”
DO YOU THINK NASCAR COULD EXPAND TO A ROAD COURSE IN ANOTHER COUNTRY AND HOW POPULAR WOULD IT BE? “I think it’s more of what does NASCAR want to do. NASCAR has always been very protective of what they are and where they are and their fans and I’m not sure they want to explore other countries. You’ve got to ask them and not me. Would it be popular? It depends where you take it. I think if you take it to Europe people, just because it’s NASCAR, the same thing when Formula 1 comes here, and people just don’t watch it. I think if you went to Asia or someplace like that, it could be a big hit – like China or Japan – it could work, but do they really want to do it. Do you really want to add more races?”